Bluer Than Thou: What It Means To Be ‘Progressive’ In Chicago

An illustration of the word progressive in the dictionary, styled to evoke the Chicago flag
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ
An illustration of the word progressive in the dictionary, styled to evoke the Chicago flag
Paula Friedrich / WBEZ

Bluer Than Thou: What It Means To Be ‘Progressive’ In Chicago

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

This election season, Chicagoans have heard a lot of candidates proudly declare they are progressives. 

Take the mayor’s race.

“I’m the most progressive candidate in this race. … I beat the Machine to become alderman of the 4th Ward. When I came into the City Council, I was a founder of the Progressive Caucus,” Toni Preckwinkle told WTTW.

Mayoral opponent Lori Lightfoot is also a self-declared progressive. “What we’ve been lacking is a leader who’s been willing to take on the status quo and carve a new progressive path forward,” she said in an early campaign statement.

Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle
Toni Preckwinkle (left) and Lori Lightfoot (right) both proudly call themselves progressives. Courtesy of campaigns

There have been fights across the city over who’s a “true” progressive, and who’s a fake, in the wards and at the mayoral level.

“It’s in the air,” said Don Rose, whose involvement in Chicago politics goes back more than 50 years. (Rose has provided some unpaid consulting to the Lightfoot campaign.) “This is the current term of art. This is why all the candidates who are ‘liberal’ or left of liberal are all calling themselves progressive.”

Rose credits Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run with reviving the term, which he first remembers hearing in its modern context in the late 1960s. 

“People who were opposed to the Vietnam War began using the term ‘progressive’ to differentiate themselves from liberals,” Rose said. This was during the term of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson. “So ‘progressive’ was then used to mean something beyond liberal.”

During the 1980s, attacks by President Ronald Reagan and other conservatives made “liberal” a dirty word; that pushed some people to adopt “progressive” instead.

August/September 2018 Issue of The Progressive magazine
The August/September 2018 issue of ‘The Progressive’ magazine. Courtesy of ‘The Progressive’
Bill Lueders, editor of the 110-year-old political magazine The Progressive, said the term is not a synonym for liberal.

“I think liberals are trying to make modest improvements, you know, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Lueders said. “Progressives want more fundamental change. It’s about radical reformation and not just tweaking around the edges of current corporate capitalism.”

In Chicago, the words “liberal” and “progressive” have their own histories.

“In Chicago, ‘liberal’ is attached to “lakefront liberal,” said Maria de los Angeles Torres, a Latin America and Latino studies and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Torres said that in the early 1980s, “lakefront liberal’ was “coded — both racially, as white — and by class, as affluent.”

Lakefront liberal, independent, regular democrat, progressive

“So when we have a grassroots movement around Harold Washington, ‘progressive’ becomes the way in which people talk about it,” said Torres, who worked to get Washington elected as Chicago’s first black mayor and later directed his Latino affairs commission.

Supporters of Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor, used
Supporters of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, used “progressive” to describe themselves, according to UIC professor Maria de los Angeles Torres, who served in the Washington administration. The word “liberal” was associated in Chicago with “lakefront liberals,” white affluent voters on the north lakefront. James Bourdier / AP Photo
Of course, there’s another defining characteristic of the word ‘progressive’ in Chicago. It means you’re an Independent, not with the Democratic machine.

“Having somebody who is part of the machine claim that they’re progressive in Chicago is a sort of contradiction in terms,” Torres said.

Opponents of Preckwinkle have argued that as head of the Democratic Party in Cook County, with control over jobs and connections to the city’s most powerful players in the Democratic Party, there’s no way she can be a progressive, though that’s a term she’s embraced for decades.

Opponents of former federal prosecutor Lightfoot say she can’t be a progressive since she’s endorsed and funded by donors who funded Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel has said focusing on political labels misses the point.

“Whether it’s the investments in the Red Line, the investments we’re doing in the Green Line, the community college effort, the new Whole Foods — I’ve never worked harder on a Whole Foods store than the one in Englewood. Those are progressive policies!” Emanuel told Bill Ruthhart of the Chicago Tribune in 2017.

“That to me is the real question, and I think too much energy is about, ‘You’re not far enough on the left, you’re not a real progressive.’”

That’s not how 33rd Ward aldermanic challenger Rossana Rodriguez sees things.

“If Rahm Emanuel calls himself a progressive anybody can be a progressive,” said the candidate, who’s running “as a progressive and a Democratic Socialist…. I think that takes it further, but I want the word ‘progressive’ to mean something!”

“If you get to close 50 schools and you get to close mental health clinics and you get to give a billion dollars to a developer and you can still call yourself a progressive, then it’s really hard to understand what that word means,” Rodriguez said. “It’s actually pretty empty of meaning.”

Rossana Rodriguez
Rossana Rodriguez campaigns from a restaurant in the Logan Square-Avondale area. The Democratic Socialist is challenging incumbent 33rd Ward Ald. Deb Mell. Both candidates describe themselves as “progressives.” Linda Lutton / WBEZ
There could be as many as five Democratic Socialists in Chicago’s City Council after Electbion Day, an indication that Chicago’s politics is genuinely taking a turn to the left, and that this discussion is not all semantics.

Rodriguez said she wants to reclaim the word ‘progressive.’ To her, it means someone who sticks up for working people, rejects “a neoliberal agenda of privatization… somebody that is willing to look into the pockets of the wealthy and get the money from where it is currently into the hands of the working people that actually produce that wealth. So that to me is somebody that is progressive.”

Rodriquez wants fully funded schools and measures to keep residents from being displaced as housing costs rise.

“If I win, and we go into the Progressive Caucus, we want to push for the Progressive Caucus to do more — a lot more — to demand more for the people of Chicago,” Rodriguez said.

Her opponent in the race is — you guessed it — also a progressive.

“I’m proudly progressive,” said incumbent Ald. Deb Mell, who says she’s tried to chart her own course despite coming from a powerful political family with deep ties to the Democratic machine. Mell said she’s fought for marriage equality, a higher minimum wage and more affordable housing.

If you zoom out and consider things from a national context, Torres, the UIC professor, said “almost everybody in Chicago can claim that they are progressive. This is a blue city. And so I could see that there is a tendency for everybody to grab on to that word given the national context, ” particularly given the rise of right-wing rhetoric.

In the end, Rose, the political consultant, said figuring out whether politicians are progressive doesn’t have to be a yes-no answer. “If you give me a checkbox of 12 items, do they all check box on all 12 items?” Maybe not, Rose said. Do they have political stands and histories supporting progressive issues? That’s what counts, he said.

Linda Lutton covers Chicago’s neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @lindalutton.